Friday, April 29, 2011

a distance organised around the "soldier"

Driving to Oregon we passed through south-west Nevada, where the mountains were primed in their cricketing whites, and then into the city of Reno, where fumes of cloud were boiling down the cliffs toward the outer suburbs, and a woman in a petrol station was telling the man behind the counter that her hens wouldn't lay their eggs in this freezing wind, then into northern California and up from a town called Susanville, into a national forest of firs and pines -- and all of a sudden the rain drops were lifting away from the heat of the bonnet, swinging like feathers on parabolas towards our faces behind the windshield; and it was snow.

The woods were silent, supernatural, not a bird, not a rustle, the branches were stifled with snow, the trees were spread with snow, the snow had been pushed aside on both sides of the road until it was as high as the car, and the even the heads of the road signs were buried; all the side roads had been barred with chains, and at one point we were stuck behind a snow plough, which lumbered forward slowly, slowly, slowly and spewed endless material out of its side like a stabbed elephant. Finally it dragged itself into a side niche and we went past with gestures, seeing that the spew had petered out and it was as if dead.

Every now and then the trees would stand aside and passing by we would see a paddock of snow, a pure vista, cleaner than anything else in the world, and through virtue of its purity looking more removed than the moon, "that pure in-itself," as Sartre writes, a snow field.

"But," he adds, "if I approach, if I want to establish an appropriate contact with the field of snow, everything is changed. Its scale of being is modified; it exists bit by bit instead of existing in vast spaces; stains, brush and crevices come to individualise every square inch. At the same time its solidarity melts into water. I sink into the snow up to my knees, if I pick some up with my hand, it turns to liquid in my fingers, it runs off, there is nothing left of it." I pictured myself getting out of the car and wading into one of those paddocks, where I knew my footprints would destroy the effect. Like the philosopher's full glass the snow was haunted, but by the holes my feet would make. "My dream of appropriating the snow vanishes at the same moment. Moreover I do not know what to do with the snow which I have just come to see at close hand. I can not get hold of that field; I can not even reconstitute it as that substantial total which offered itself to my eyes." It was all true, and the most I could do was what I was doing already, which was to feel drawn to it, pulled and lured towards -- what? -- not frozen water -- but what? -- and, think, it would be cold, see, evening was falling, and how thick were my shoes? Not very. The snow turned grey with twilight.

Haunted in Hazel E. Barnes's translation of Being and Nothingness becomes a graceful word; it makes the automatic actions of Sartre's world seem mythical. He writes about transcendence in a plain philosophical sense, but the language is transcendent too, a fantasy language. "Desire is an attitude aiming at enchantment," he writes. "Slime is the agony of water." (It's funny to see (said M. last night) how the house blinks before the air conditioning comes on.) There is one passage in which Sartre presents a scene and then turns it inside out around a single muscular action, the instant when "he throws his gun" --

The soldier who is fleeing formerly had the Other-as-enemy at the point of his gun. The distance from him to the enemy was measured by the trajectory of his bullets, and I too could apprehend and transcend that distance as a distance organised around the "soldier" as centre. But behold now he throws his gun in the ditch and is trying to save himself. Immediately the presence of the enemy surrounds him and presses in upon him; the enemy, who had been held at a distance by the trajectory of the bullets, leaps upon him at the very instant when the trajectory collapses; at the same time that land in the background, which he was defending and against which he was leaning as against a wall, suddenly opens fan-wise and becomes the foreground, the welcoming horizon toward which he is fleeing for refuge.

The prose performs magic, everything is transformed, as handkerchieves turn into rabbits or doves, and this is an effect that Proust liked (so his English translators make it appear), this metamorphosis of an object, event, or person, making it seem to open and grow, becoming multiple (as it always was, you realise, and this is one of the things he has revealed to you, revelation being his business), so that as Lost Time goes on it becomes evident that the early Charlus was always haunted by aspects of himself that the Narrator would discover in later volumes, and the girl making Moncrieff's "indelicate gesture" in Swann's Way was always haunted by a woman in Time Regained. In Jean he hadn't found himself yet, and the effect comes and goes. He sends Jean "with his mother to a swimming-bath" where the water turns into an "icy sea", this transformation moving on a pivot, as in Nothingness, but now the action is an action of the mind: "he had felt" --

Standing on a wooden raft that rose and fell to the movement of the water with, before him, an immense and liquid cavern that bellied outwards under plunging bodies which emerged again a little farther on and, though hedged about with other cubicles, seemed fathomless -- he had felt, like those ancients who believed that in a spot not far from Pozzuoli was an entrance to the underworld, that here was the gateway to those icy seas whose limits lay within this narrow space, their angry potency surging between the piles through which they could be reached, though far below they opened into a strange and unknown world, a counterpart, perhaps, of the one with which he was familiar, but unvisited by any light of the sun.

You didn't know this, but I've been trying to find an excuse to post something from that part of the book for weeks.


  1. We do now though!

    Love your description of the landscape as you drove through it. We've driven through bits of Nevada, Northern California, and Oregon and Washington ... we've driven through Yosemite in the snow. As you say, lured by something BUT must say, a place unvisited by an light of the sun could not hold me for long. I'd be lured for a while by its difference, by a sort of mysticism that is foreign to my Australian soul but I usually start to hanker for something more golden, more open.

  2. I wonder sometimes how I'd do if we moved to one of the cloudy northern places, Portland, for example, or one of the areas that gets snowed under in winter. I think the novelty of snow would wear off in a day or two, and I'd want to be able to walk around in a t-shirt again. But I'm told that summer in Arizona sees people scuttling from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned building and back into air-conditioned car, and I don't want that either. Something in the middle would suit me. "Golden and open" but not "insanely hot and full of snakes," which is where this country landscape is aiming to be in a month or two. We already have the snakes.

    South-west Nevada surprised me, actually, with the beauty of those mountains. I had no expectations of it, but we drove and drove, and there were lakes, and small towns, ranches, horses on the hills, acres of openness with the whitecaps in the distance -- and my only ideas about Reno came from that photograph they always show, with the sign over the street saying, "The Biggest Little Town In The World," and casinos and buildings behind it like a smaller Vegas. We didn't see that street, or that sign, or any sign of the casinos, only the looming mountain and those clouds rolling down towards the suburbs and the highways, which was more astonishing and majestic than I can describe -- as if the Greek Gods lived next door on Olympus and wanted the people of Reno to remember they were there.